Having directed the successful Foxie! (The Cunning Little Vixen), the Belgian designer, artist and theatre director Christophe Coppens has taken on a second opera. Béla Bartók’s two most important works for the stage, Bluebeard’s Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin, take us into two totally different worlds. After a mysterious universe full of symbolism in Bluebeard’s Castle awaits the expressionism and even violence of The Miraculous Mandarin. Director Christophe Coppens talks to dramaturg Reinder Pols.
Following on from Foxie! (Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen), your next production is a diptych by Béla Bartók. You have moved away from Janáček’s ‘realistic dream world’ to the symbolism of Bluebeard and The Miraculous Mandarin. Do you see this as a logical step?
Foxie! was a steep learning curve for me. It was my opera debut, but it was also a difficult assignment. Though I adore Janáček’s music, the folk life and the particular tone, the way of talking and singing were far removed from my own aesthetic. While I feel completely at home in the opera genre – which combines so many layers, facets and means of expression –, fulfilling my vision of that work was a constant balancing act. Both Bartók pieces are closer to my own sphere and to my work. Bartók’s music gives me a genuine frisson, but the story also moves me very deeply because it is so instinctive and clear. With this opera I have a slightly blanker canvas which allows me more scope than I had in the world of Foxie! With their abstraction and expressionism, these two works by Bartók are in sharp contrast to the world of Janáček. I would like to have made Janáček’s dream world more realistic and harsher than the composer originally intended, but with Bartók I don’t want to do that. In Foxie! I also learned to handle large crowds, where directing the actors was all about making everything run as naturally as possible. After that this Bartók diptych is almost like a miniature: here the focus is on the interaction between the characters, while I can give shape to every desire, every movement, even down to the position of the hands.
Bartók’s music gives me a genuine frisson, but the story also moves me very deeply because it is so instinctive and clear.
Yet the two works in this Bartók diptych are also very different from each other. Bluebeard is an opera and The Miraculous Mandarin is a pantomime ballet. How do you set about those different genres?
The two works by Bartók are indeed very different! Before the interval the production will be pared down, guarded, subdued and somnolent, whereas after the interval all hell breaks loose. I see Bluebeard almost as an abstract painting which comes to life, without beginning or end, with two voices and two characters revolving around each other but never actually touching, very unemotional and restrained. Everything becomes one, with Bluebeard as the core. As the heart of the castle, he sits in the middle of the set, while Judith circles round it and asks to be admitted into his heart. Then The Miraculous Mandarin is a real feast in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is a large musical explosion on a relatively thin story line, with the music taking different twists and turns almost every second. I was hesitant about working with a choreographer for this piece. But, as the subtitle tells us, for me it is much more a ‘pantomime grotesque’ than a ballet. There are clearly ostentatious moments, though it never becomes caricatural. In that sense it does bear a certain resemblance to scenes from Foxie! where a lot happened on stage at the same time. I like the way you decide for yourself what you’re going to look at on stage and which story line you follow, just like in real, day-to-day life. I like playing with the ‘legibility’ idea and the sense that you are missing something because there is more happening than you can watch at any given time, but of course you also need to be able to follow the story. The Miraculous Mandarin will be like a whirlwind of things all happening at the same time: while seduction is going on in one place, elsewhere other characters will carry on with their own story. You might compare it to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It’s like looking through a telescope and observing different scenes, which trigger a whirlwind of actions and emotions.
In the pantomime ballet The Magical Mandarin there is a script but you aren’t tied to a sung text or to a libretto. Does this give you more freedom to tell the story?
Bartók’s heirs and publisher are quite strict when it comes to ensuring that everything goes according to the book. We don’t have the right to change much. So the main story line stays the same, but it is so broad that it also leaves room for interpretation, for poetic licence and adaptations to modern-day society.
The Magical Mandarin was a scandal when it was created. To what extent is that still the case? Is there still an element of explosiveness in this work?
It is set in a world of depravity. So you are warned! (laughs) No, I don’t like ‘shocking for shock’s sake’, or ‘sex for sex’s sake’. It will all be rather more blurred, or stranger. I prefer to capture the imagination with actions you can’t immediately place. I find that more interesting than showing things in the opera which you can see more realistically on the internet. That’s not what opera is for, in my view. And of course our norms have changed quite a lot: the story line confronts us with values from the beginning of the twentieth century, and these days they are certainly a bit different. What I can reveal is that it will be a very surrealist production, with a certain sort of humour and lightness, and of course the music is still very explosive material.
Where will you put the emphasis?
Once again I want to show my regard for the position of women. As in Foxie!, here, too, the woman is first and foremost a victim, in this case the victim of a pimp. I make other characters as well and of one woman I make three... and together they are one. I show these women primarily from the man’s viewpoint -which is not really a nice start - until the positions of power shift. The relationships between the characters will be interpreted differently. I see the women as the stronger sex, while the mandarin is almost esoteric, he doesn’t really exist, but is more a state of mind of the other characters. At the same time he is the cause, the problem and the solution.
How do you see that man-woman relationship in Bluebeard? Isn’t Bluebeard the prototype of the man who doesn’t want anyone to see inside his soul, someone who shields himself?
In a bid to get to know Bluebeard better, Judith throws open one door after another in his soul, but he doesn’t find it easy to bare himself. He does let her in and lets her go where she wants to go. It is she who decides to go further, opening door after door and he is unable to stop her. Does she go too far? I want to leave that to the imagination. For me this is played out on a more abstract level. I want to separate the two characters, they won’t touch each other. Not because he doesn’t want to or can’t: she makes a huge impression on him from the outset, he makes himself vulnerable and eventually also shows his feelings while she goes on routing around in his soul. Everything here is very passionate. Perhaps he has never seen her? That’s why I want to stage it on a very abstract level, so that it is almost not about them...
I like the way you decide for yourself what you’re going to look at on stage and which story line you follow, just like in real, day-to-day life. I like playing with the ‘legibility’ idea and the sense that you are missing something because there is more happening than you can watch at any given time.
Doesn’t the problem of human relationships make this diptych more topical than ever?
The themes are very human, but they are so topical or are they timeless? The diptych clearly deals with the difficulty of communicating, it’s about talking at cross-purposes, not being able to establish real human contact, but there is also the archetype of the undemonstrative man who bottles up his emotions. These are timeless human themes and digital contact has not made them any easier.
Recorded by Reinder Pols